Eating at Grand Electric the other night, the latest local restaurant people just won’t shut up about, I finally understood why food is the new indie rock. After lining up for half an hour in the cold, not only was there an inexplicable little thrill when we were let in–just like a concert!–there was also another vague feeling, too: hey passers-by, look at me! Here I was, doing that thing everyone was talking about.
As pathetic as the sentiment may be, it’s also one I’d guess isn’t particularly rare in this town. Though it would be impossible to choose a moment Toronto became a city obsessed with food, it now clearly is. From talk in bars to social media and the press, it seems people simply can’t stop talking about what we eat and drink. Even the recent machinations over transit can’t match the restaurant and bar scene for sheer volume and frequency of excited chatter.
If you did want to choose a tipping point, however, you could do worse than the arrival of The Black Hoof. It was arguably that “meaty” establishment that led Toronto into its current gustatory frenzy. The Hoof’s now infamous no-reservations policy and, so I’m told, swoon-worthy food, generated an absurd, never-seen-before level of buzz.
The hype, also fuelled by Toronto’s then still-new love affair with Twitter and Facebook, neatly coincided with the fuss over Ossington. The culinary madness then went on to include everything from the $7 sandwich from Porchetta & Co. to the rustic Italian craze on Dundas West to whatever David Lee was cooking up at Nota Bene. Folk just couldn’t–and cannot–stop obsessing over food.
So now here we are, and it is, from a certain perspective, hard to complain. The food buzz feels as if it’s part of a larger sort of cultural expansion of Toronto in which, finally, people are actually excited about, and maybe even happy, to be living in this city. Though whinging about T.O. is still more popular than praising it, there has inarguably been a sharp uptick over the last decade or so in the excitement and even pride people feel about this city.
But if the culinary boom is on one hand a sign of a newfound pride and swagger, it’s also indicative of this city’s long-standing troubles and downsides. Most obviously–and, one should add, innocuously–is that Toronto is yet again picking up on the worst aspects of New York, a phenomenon so common and old, it hardly warrants complaining about any more.
More damning, though, is the question of to what extent the food renaissance reflects Toronto’s many inhabitants or even meets their needs. When you look at the latest buzz-worthy restaurants–The County General, Woodlot, Acadia et al–it doesn’t exactly scream “most multicultural city on earth”. Yes, some waves have been made by places like Guu or Banh Mi Boys, but by and large, Toronto’s culinary fascination does little to reflect its multi-faceted make-up, instead seeming to offer a milquetoast version of cuisine that manages to miss that there are hundreds of thousands of people from different cultures here who collectively have thousands of years of culinary history behind them.
Fine, you might say: there’s no reason that everything in the city must be multicultural. In practical terms, it’s not as if there’s any shortage of “multicultural” eating establishments, right? And of course the last thing we’d want to do is to resurrect that awful god called “Authenticity” who, after centuries, we seem to have finally started to put to rest.
Those are eminently reasonable, fair points. What is unsettling though is this: the hype over restaurants has started to stand in as a public symbol of Toronto’s up and coming place in the world. If and when it’s taken as a synecdoche of cultural change, it’s a less than ideal one. Saturated in the tastes of a largely white, upper-middle income creative class, the resto-buzz does little to reflect what makes Toronto unique in the world. The trend seems to elide the experiences of hundreds of thousands of city dwellers who have not only become intimately familiar with food from all over, but have been busy inventing new fusion forms at home in their own kitchens.
This isn’t meant to be accusatory. Most of the city’s press is either located in or focused on the city centre, an area that surprisingly is 82% white. It seems plausible that something of a cultural feedback loop is going on in which attention focuses on a mostly white downtown, which produces a public version of Toronto markedly different from the lived, commonly experienced one. It’s that disparity that is upsetting because it gets bound up in an unfortunate history in which “the ethnic” is always represented as a supplement to the real thing, an addition tacked-on to a core culture and life–something that just isn’t reflected by the city’s demographics or, or for that matter, the experience of most white Torontonians, either. It isn’t so much a problem of “discrimination” as it is a strange choice of how the media decides what constitutes “things worth talking about”.
In once-multicultural Kensington Market, one of the latest buzz-y bars is Cold Tea. Though hardly a secret, it is marked only by a red light at the end of a hallway. Upon opening the door, one sees a cart that sells dim sum and pork buns, and walking past it around the corner, one finds inside a great, fun place to drink.
It seems, from the outside, the way things should be in Toronto — a perfect fusion of food from the city’s largest visible minority group and beer and good people from all over. And in a way, it totally is. But looked at slightly metaphorically, it’s also a core of people drinking and socializing in a room, who step out occasionally to grab a bit of ethnic food. As if some of us, even when we are right there amidst the grit and glamour of the city, are always left just a little bit outside.